A shallow plié can be frustrating for any dancer. But even if you think you've reached your limit, a deeper, juicier plié may be achievable, says Karen Clippinger, professor at California State University, Long Beach, and author of Dance Anatomy and Kinesiology. "Many dancers can improve the depth of their plié through persistent stretching and careful attention to optimal body alignment," she says. Barring any structural issues that would shorten your plié, such as bone spurs at the front of the ankle, these three exercises will help you access your full range.
- a 1/2- to 1-inch thick book
- a Thera-band
1. Calf Stretch Sequence
"Improving flexibility in your calf muscles can allow for a deeper plié," says Clippinger. To encourage a long-term increase in flexibility, do this series at the end of class when your muscles are warm.
- Place your hands on a wall (or a barre) and stand with one foot about 12 inches behind the other, and the ball of the back foot resting on a thin book. Bend the front knee as the back heel slowly presses back and down toward the floor, until you feel a stretch in your calf.
- From this position, press the ball of the back foot down for about 5 seconds (contracting the calf muscle) without allowing any visible movement.
- Then, relax the calf and bend the front knee further as your weight shifts slightly forward to deepen the calf stretch on the back leg. Hold for about 20 seconds.
- To stretch the soleus, the deeper calf muscle also used during pliés, repeat the above steps with a bent back leg.
2. Pliés Against a Wall
"This exercise enhances a stable position of the foot that can allow you to 'relax into your plié' for a deeper and more fluid movement," says Clippinger. She notes that many dancers tend to lean their upper torso forward or allow the feet to roll in excessively when they plié. That skewed balance limits your ability to reach your deepest position.
- Stand in second position with your back against a wall and your feet slightly away from it. Slide down the wall to the normal stopping depth of your plié.
- Experiment with shifting your weight on your feet, rolling them in and then out.
- Find correct alignment of the feet while in plié. Your weight should be divided about equally between the heels and the front of the feet, with all toes firmly in contact with the ground. Place a little more weight on the big toes than each of the four smaller toes.
- From this position, let your leg muscles yield a bit so that you smoothly sink into a slightly deeper plié, with your knees reaching over your toes. Repeat this sinking motion 3 times and then rise while keeping the feet stable. Do 4 complete sets.
- Next, test out your plié in one smooth downward-and-upward movement using the increased range of motion. Then, plié away from the wall with your side to a mirror, incorporating what you've just practiced: Try to keep the torso vertical, weight centered on the feet, and knees over the toes. Over time, try this technique with pliés in other positions.
3. Turning Out with a Thera-Band
"If you are having trouble keeping your knees over your feet and avoiding letting the feet roll in, try this exercise," says Clippinger.
- Tie a Thera-Band above the knees and support yourself on your elbows.
- Reach both legs apart in parallel, then externally rotate the legs and separate them further, staying turned out and working against the band's resistance. Focus on using the deep turnout muscles underneath the gluteus maximus and at the base of the buttocks. Pause for 4 counts.
- Reverse the motion to return to the starting position. Repeat 10 times.
- Next, stand and repeat the wall pliés (exercise 2), but let the knees collapse in as the ankles roll in. Then, use your deep turnout muscles to help guide the knees over the feet as you perform your desired plié with a stable position of the ankles.